To say that the cowboy is iconic in North American culture is hardly sufficient. Mythic hero is more accurate, but it’s important to remember that the cowboy was real, not supernatural like Hercules or Spiderman. The reality was that, for a brief period, essentially from 1860 to 1900, there were a great number of horses and cattle running free in the American frontier, most of them having been abandoned by retreating Mexicans. With the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, the ’roundup’ and sale of these cattle became possible, leading to the beef industry that employed a great many ‘cowboys.’ The cattle were herded to railheads of course, but not too quickly, because if you did that the cattle lost weight, and they were sold for slaughter by the pound.
Thus the cowboy’s life was one of outdoors ambling on horseback, as part of a collaborative team of men who camped early for the night, gathered around fires to share a meal, tell stories, and maybe even sing songs. It’s a lifestyle with easily apparent appeal, although here’s what the reclusive American writer Trevanian had to say about the broader charm of the cowboy:
“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.”
When the American film industry moved to California in the early part of the 20th century, there were by then plenty of unemployed cowboys knocking about, men who could ride, rope and sometimes shoot with the best of them—just one more coincidental reason why the western movie became incredibly popular. And it is truly difficult to overestimate the popularity and therefore the influence of the western movie. Arguably the first dramatic movie was a western—The Great Train Robbery in 1903—and the genre was dominant right through until the 70s, when it died with nevertheless accomplished films like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the western movie was so successful, over such a long period of time (still longer than any other genre), that it created a ‘conventional form’ along with a set of audience expectations that, long after expiration of the genre itself, offers moviemakers who can reinvent the form within a new context (i.e. The Matrix or Drive) an unparalleled opportunity to go boffo at the box office.
The influence of cowboy culture in popular music is scarcely less significant. Cole Porter knocked it right out of the park in 1934 with a sublime rhyme scheme in the cowpoke paean Don’t Fence Me In…
I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.
I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.
The song has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Killers. And almost 40 years later, James Taylor waxed nearly as lyrical (rhyming “Boston” with “frostin”) in maybe his best song, Sweet Bay James:
There is a young cowboy; he lives on the range.
His horse and his cattle are his only companions.
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons…
More than anything else, the cowboy represents freedom, a largely solitary life free of long-term obligations, tight schedules or immediate bosses. Too often in the westerns the cowboy’s love interest represented civilization, settling down and responsibility, and so too often, at the end of the story, the cowboy rode away from the girl, off into the sunset to resume a life of independent rambling (although it’s worth noting that in a couple of the defining westerns, High Noon and Stagecoach, the hero did choose the girl, and they rode off together in a buckboard).
It’s no surprise that the cowboy’s allure arose alongside the maturing of the industrial revolution, when incomes were rising but often as the result of work fettered to a factory system of mechanical drudgery. Are we any more free in the age of the digital revolution, with its increased pace and unrelenting connectivity? Well, not so’s you’d notice.
In the digital age, the cowboy hero seems a complete anachronism, more irrelevant than ever, but I think it’s worth remembering that, although the cowboy almost always resorted to a gun to resolve his conflicts with the bad guys—and the impact of that implicit message upon American society can hardly be overestimated either (see Guns)—he did so reluctantly, in defence of the little guy being oppressed by powerful villains, who were often corporate-types.
Today the cowboy is gone for good from our cultural landscape, and I’m not suggesting he should be brought back. But in our world of ever more powerful corporate interests, we could all use some of his individual pluck. The economic wheels of our day are rolling along just fine; the ecological and moral ones, not so much. Sadly, too much of the cowboy’s good is gone with him.